/ Food & Drink, Health, Shopping

How many chickens really contain campylobacter?

The Food Standards Agency has today published the first of its quarterly results for levels of campylobacter contamination in supermarket chickens – we now want to know the best and worst performing shops…

Although most people haven’t heard of campylobacter, its effects can be deadly and debilitating.

The FSA has found that 6 in 10 chickens are contaminated, causing around 280,000 cases of food poisoning a year and 100 deaths.

But unlike salmonella, campylobacter remains mysterious. Many cases are sporadic and the onset of illness can be several days after contaminated food was eaten. There’s also no sign of a vaccine.

Preventing campylobacter contamination

We know that most campylobacter comes from chicken and it is a priority for the FSA, which has been working with retailers and the poultry industry to try to improve controls and bring levels down.

There’s no simple answer, but a lot is now known about what can help reduce the levels of contamination. In particular, more concerted efforts have to be made by the retailers and suppliers to tighten controls and prevent contamination at every point in the rearing and processing chain.

The problem is that this comes at a cost and whilst many people are unaware of the issue, there’s not a huge incentive for food businesses to improve. The FSA used national Food Safety Week to tell people not to wash chicken as this spreads the bug about.

But while heightened consumer awareness is obviously essential, we have been relying on consumers to guard against food industry weaknesses for too long.

Chlorine washes for chickens in the US

In recent years, there has also been a lot of focus on end process treatments, such as chlorine washes that are permitted in the US but not in the EU, as a way of cleaning up chicken at the end of the production line. More acceptable treatments, such as rapid surface chilling, are becoming available but still risk taking the focus away from improving the rest of the production process.

The retailer survey is a welcome move by the FSA but so far it has not published the results by retailer. This is important to help drive up standards and enable consumers to make more informed choices.

The horsemeat incident highlighted the vulnerability of food supply chains. There are many risks and weaknesses that are difficult to anticipate. Campylobacter is a problem that we have known about for many years and it’s time for the FSA to show that it can still be tough and drive improvements across the industry.

A version of this post first appeared on The Grocer.


I have never been happy with the advice not to wash chicken before cooking. The reasoning is that the toxin produced by Camplylobacter is destroyed by heat, as are the bacteria themselves.

What concerns me is that other hazardous bacteria produce heat-stable toxins that will remain after cooking. Some of these toxins are quite nasty. I would rather take my chances washing off dirt and slime containing bacteria and toxins. I have done so carefully and have not had any problem. I take care not to splash water around the kitchen and to disinfect surfaces with bleach afterwards.

I presume that the fact that 6 out of 10 chickens are contaminated with Camplylobacter is down to poor husbandry or processing. As mentioned in Sue’s introduction, we could wash the carcasses with chlorine (presumably this means bleach) but it would be better to improve standards in the food industry.

We have been told that contaminated chicken causes around 280,000 cases of food poisoning a year and 100 deaths a year. I wonder how many of the less serious cases go unreported. It is a depressing statistic. Modern methods have given us cheap chicken but at the cost of it being considered too hazardous to wash.


As far as I can see this does not seem to be an easy problem to solve. World Health Organisation published a report in 2009 – don’t know whether there has been substantial progress since? Control seems not to be straightforward at any stages in the chain – from breeding birds, raising flocks, slaughter and even cooking (some heat resistance apparently). It seems to me that whatever multiple measures need to be taken will need very responsible management. This is an international problem, not something we can beat the FSA with.
I’d worry whether imported chicken from outside the EU, at least, could be trusted to meet these measures.
Like other foods, I’d buy chicken from responsible retailers, avoid cheap versions, and cook it well – and be careful about handling raw chicken when other foods are being prepared.


Here is a link to what the government and industry are doing to try and tackle the problem. It is one of the documents on the Food Standards Agency website.

As Malcolm says, tackling the problem is not easy but thinking about the fatalities and the number of people who become seriously ill means that we need to do as much as we reasonably can achieve. Campylobacter is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK.


“The problem is that this comes at a cost …… there’s not a huge incentive for food businesses to improve.”
The EU estimate – EFSA – “With over 190,000 human cases annually, this disease is the most frequently reported food-borne illness in the European Union (EU). However, the actual number of cases is believed to be around nine million each year. The cost of campylobacteriosis to public health systems and to lost productivity in the EU is estimated by EFSA to be around EUR 2.4 billion a year.”
I wonder what incentives are needed for the food businesses to improve to save some of this EUR 2.4 billion? Whilst it seems difficult to control Campylobacter therer are a number of “interventions” that can help reduce the risk. Perhaps the EU should spend some money monitoring these interventions and imposing penalties when they are not used properly? That might be an incentive for food businesses? Maybe we should be thinking about strict controls on imports from outside the EU (remember bans in other countries on British beef when we had BSE?)


It is the food industry’s responsibility to produce safe food and follow the relevant regulations, so I’m not sure if incentives are appropriate. Fines might be treated as a business expense and used as a reason to increase prices. Naming and shaming the worst offenders might be the best approach. I understand that the government intended to publish information that compared the supermarkets but that does not seem to have happened.

This rather unpleasant video was published recently: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/23/-sp-revealed-dirty-secret-uk-poultry-industry-chicken-campylobacter


wavechanger, the “incentives” I had in mind were banning the distribution of chicken from offending companies.
The EU should spend money monitoring producers, slaughterers and distributors (including retailers) – and ensure, as far as possible, only safe chicken is sold. Fines are a waste of time. Loss of business is one sanction, but there should be criminal sanctions against individuals responsible for knowingly evading measures deisigned to maintain public health.
Naming and shaming – we have short memories, and probably care little. How many still shop at stores selling horsemeat?


Malcolm – Hmm. I think the use of the word ‘incentive’ did not convey what you had in mind, but I think we can agree that some form of penalty is needed.

You choose your retailers carefully and I avoid budget meat and other foods. That’s great but everyone deserves safe food. I agree that the EU has an important role in this and other safety issues, and I wish that they would not tinker with trivial matters that generate so much poor publicity by the press. I think you are right that action needs to be taken against individuals who knowingly evade safety measures. Here fines would have an effect, as would banning them from working in the food industry.

I would like to know how the campylobacter problem has changed over the years. When I was young, chicken was regarded as a treat rather than cheap meat. Now we are told that we should not wash chicken because of the risk to our health, so we pop it in the oven complete with a factory-fresh dressing of filth and faeces. 🙁

In the future it may be possible to overcome the problem by vaccinating chickens but in the meantime there is a lot that could be done to clean up the processing of poultry.


wavechange, I was picking on “incentive” from the introduction “there’s not a huge incentive for food businesses to improve”. My point was there is a huge incentive to save the EU up to EUR2.4 billion – apart from the far more important prevention of illness and deaths. That “incentive” needs to be implemented!